Howard Street turns a corner Merchants hope traffic will help jump-start stalled shopping district

September 10, 1996|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

The days of pedestrian as king are over along Howard Street between Baltimore and Saratoga streets. And business owners in this struggling retail district couldn't be happier.

Today, after nearly a decade, northbound automobiles will be allowed back on the short section that some have dubbed "Death Valley" because of its seeming inactivity.

Save for the light rail service that runs through every 15 minutes and the occasional bus, there was a strange quiet along this section of Howard Street yesterday.

"It looks dead here," said Milt Rosenbaum, president of the Market Center Association and owner of Hosiery World.

"A terrible mistake was made on Howard Street" when the cars were banned. "Howard Street turned into Death Valley."

A stream of Toyotas, Plymouths and Chevys will breathe life back into this ailing inner-city area near the popular Lexington Market, merchants said.

But automobile traffic is only part of an ambitious long-range plan to transform this former gem of the city into a bustling shopping hub once again.

Last October, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke formed the Howard Street Task Force to figure out a way to make the area more attractive to customers.

What the panel came up with was, in essence, a blueprint for attracting bargain-hunting shoppers, with government offices and an arts and culture center nearby.

Along the southern section of Howard Street, between Lombard and Fayette streets, plans call for university, government and sports uses.

The central section, between Fayette and Centre streets, is designated for retail uses, but will include a theater, artist housing and apartments.

The northern section, from Centre Street to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall area, includes arts, entertainment, cultural and residential uses.

The plans are a long way from Howard Street's glory days, when it was a city showpiece of theaters, upscale shopping and restaurants, and attracted some of Hollywood's most popular singers and actors.

"It is never going to go back to the way it was," Rosenbaum said.

Today the Rite Aid drugstore, which has moved into the old Hecht Co. building, is hailed as a major plus for the area.

"The perception that there is more activity down here will breed more interest and business," said Bill Glazer, owner of Gage Menswear.

This isn't the first time that Howard Street has been hailed as a place poised on the brink of change.

Since before the 1970s, when Howard Street took a turn for the worse, the area has been revamped, repaved and re-configured in hopes of reversing a trend: consumer flight to the suburban malls.

It hasn't worked yet.

"My overall feeling is that I feel optimistic," said Larry Levine, owner of Morton's Department Store. "But I'm keeping my fingers crossed."

Pub Date: 9/10/96

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